Love in Times of Crisis / Iván García

The half-empty pockets, the threat of unemployment and lack of a future don’t prevent Cubans from celebrating “sacred” events on the national calendar, like Mother’s Day, the second Sunday of May. Or the Day of Lovers, on February 14.

“You always ‘invent’ (find a solution), even though you have little money. You have only one life, and you have to try to enjoy it,” says René, 43, a waiter. You always break open the piggy bank on Valentine’s Day, and the celebration depends on your savings. “Last year I took my wife to dinner at a restaurant, and then we made love in one of those private homes that are rented out to couples.”

In 2011, the small change from René’s savings will reach only far enough to take his wife to a paladar and then to a nightclub. Still, he’s luckier than Luis Orlando, 18, a student. “I just connected with a jevita (girl), and all I can give her is some perfume, a bottle that was a gift to my mother, who didn’t like the scent and gave it to me.”

Perfumes and colognes figure among the most popular gifts on the island for the Day of Lovers. Also soaps, talcum powders and creams. “A Cuban can skimp on food, but he’s got to have soap, deodorant and lotion to put on after a bath,” says Emelina, 62, a homemaker.

This is a long-standing habit. Before 1959, branches of famous brands like Revlon, Max Factor, Avon and Helena Rubinstein were established in Cuba. And there were two large businesses that made beauty and home products, Crusellas and Sabatés. Later,the revolution clumped together the production of cosmetics, perfumes and toiletries in the Suchel firm, which today is part of Suchel-Camacho, a joint venture with Spain

“Once my husband appeared with a pressure cooker and I almost threw it at his head,” says Marina, 35, a clerk. “And I don’t like it either when they give me underwear. The best gift a man can give a woman that day is a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers.”

Philip, 46, a businessman, is romantic like that. He has hired an actor and a pianist, for a mini-recital in the living room of his large residence. “It will be a surprise for my wife. The reading of poems to music will last one hour. Then there will be a catering service that I hired, with a buffet first. And dinner with a bottle of Spanish wine.”

For those who can’t afford these luxuries, there’s always the wall of the Malecón. It’s free, on the Day of Lovers. And every day of the year.

Translated by Regina Anavy

February 13 2011